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March-ing through Napa-- Chapter One

by Jon Rusciano

Just after my return from the November trip with my son, my pictures and stories started to circulate to anyone who was inclined to listen.  My very good friend Calvin Hunt (an ex-professional football player, turned successful business and financial consultant) indicated to me that he really would like to make that trip with me, next time I decided to go.  So without hesitation, that adventure’s plans commenced for mid-March 2009.   And what was so great for me, he had no agenda that I had to accommodate.   I did make sure he was OK with the old faithful (and economical) Travelodge-Napa accommodations, but with that aside, the trip’s composition was mine to script.

My last trip, I was disheartened by my inability to schedule a visit to Shafer Vineyards.  So, the most pressing matter to address with this journey was reserving a visit to their facility.  Not wanting to deal with the heavy weekend traffic, Shafer only offers tours and tasting on weekdays by appointment, at 10:30 am. and 2:00 pm.  I was not at all disappointed in being “forced” to lengthen the long weekend, with a Thursday evening arrival.  The rest of the reservations fell into place very nicely, as if assembling a grade school level jigsaw puzzle.  Stops were grouped by appellation, starting farthest away from our hotel and ending each day with the least amount of driving possible.

Wanting Calvin to meet my “wine connection,” Magid (owner of Ludwig’s Fine Wines), I also arranged a Thursday evening visit to San Anselmo, where we planned to have dinner with him and his girlfriend Barbara.   Our trip went smoothly, and the little British sweetheart inside my GPS, brought us to the doorstep of Ludwig’s right on time.  Calvin and I love Sushi (our wives are not so fond of raw fish), so we typically eat it when our business schedules allow us to have lunch together from time to time.   Napa’s Sushi outlook (from what I could determine on-line) was bleak.  Magid had mentioned that there was a place in San Anselmo called Sushi 69, which was one of the better places in the Bay Area.  I thought it would be interesting to evaluate his taste in Sushi, relative to his great taste in wine.  It proved to be some of the best I had ever eaten, complimented so perfectly by the wine and sake that he brought for pairing.  I did not make note of the sake, since it is not my drink, but the wine was HdV Chardonnay from Hyde Vineyards.  The combination was artistic, another of Magid’s talents.  After a wonderful evening, and a few cups of coffee to help adjust my noggin, we set out for “base camp” Napa.

Gillwood’s Café (just like before) was open at 7:30 am.   And (again, still on Central Time) we were there waiting for this blessed event, after a morning walk down to the river, exploring various parts of town.   The restaurant’s breakfasts seemed even better than back in November.   The cinnamon rolls looked every bit as inviting.  Again, I resisted.

First stop was Stag’s Leap Winery.  There we toured a beautiful old Manor House built in 1890, along with scenic grounds and antique structures which enveloped the winery.  It had been a residence in the days of old, as well as a “speak easy” during Prohibition.  Not so very long ago, I discovered that Stag’s Leap Winery and Stag’s Leap Cellars were different establishments (just another novice admission).   We visited both places that day, and each tasting/tour guide was quick to point out the fact that their winery was either around much longer than the other and/or that their products were superior.  Cellars we hit at the end of the day, and although they boasted winning the famous “Judgment of Paris” for red wine, back in 1976 (the one which yielded worldwide attention to Napa wines), their premium offerings of Cask 23 and SLV Cabernets (to me) paled in comparison to Winery’s  The Leap.  I gave SLV another chance at dinner that night, and it was so bold that I thought I felt the hair on my chest thickening.

Lunch that day was quick and uneventful.   We grabbed a pre-made sandwich at the Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, not wanting to be late for our appointment at Shafer.  Following the Stag’s Leap Winery tour, I decided to make a quick jaunt into St. Helena for a brief stop at Spottswoode’s Winery.   Magid had advised me that their ’05 Cabernet was excellent.  When I saw the Wine Enthusiast rating of 97 for that wine and determined that Magid could not access it through his distributors, I decided just to purchase a bottle (at a whopping $130) to sample back at home in Houston.   The place was quaint and quite compelling with its early 1900’s style, covered porch surrounded residence-looking offices and tasting facility.  I do regret not having the time for a tour and tasting, but the schedule had been set months earlier. Structure and Order (in my world) are right up there next to Godliness.   I will allow that promising Cabernet to bottle-age for a few years before opening.

The Shafer Winery proved to be one of the highlights of the trip.  Their building for reception and tasting appeared to be quite new, with stone walkways and a modern design of taupe plaster walls, galvanized metal roof and generous applications of glass.  Large banks of solar panels were in numerous locations.  The entire facility is 100% powered by the electricity they generated on-site, although I learned that their solar electricity is wired back to the public utility, and they in turn are credited for it.  Very “green” of them, indeed.   Walking up to the entrance from the parking lot, we were greeted by Tanner and Tucker Shafer, the two resident winery dogs.  Inside they offered us their own business cards, with names and paw prints embossed on each.   The grounds were immaculate, without any signs of canine wear and tear (or other adornments). 

We sat down (with a group of eight other visitors) in a beautifully prepared room, with place settings which appeared to be awaiting nobility.  The wines were poured starting with their whites.  My interest peaked when we sampled the newly issued ‘06 One Point Five Cabernet.  Magid had months earlier insisted that I try the ‘05, and my only regret was that I did not purchase enough of it from him.  That new issue did not seem quite as tasty as the ‘05, but it still was “no slouch.”   Mr. John Shafer (the founder) was on the grounds that day and he graced us with a visit.  What a personable gentleman he proved to be, speaking with everyone and fielding every question asked of him as if we were his own personally invited guest.  Sincere interest in your customers is a key to your business’ ultimate success (one of the primary themes of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a book that Calvin urged me to read, years ago).   I digress.

After Mr. Shafer’s visit, we were allowed to sip “the nectar of the Gods,” the ’04 issue of their premium Cabernet called Hillside Select.   I had purchased 3 bottles of this wine from Magid, months earlier, but had not opened it yet.  His words to me were “try and keep these bottles for several years, if you can keep your hands off of them.”   This would have been much easier, until I had my first taste.   Wowzer, what a beautiful piece of work!  In a recent issue of Wine Enthusiast, it was given a perfect 100 rating.   Surprised, I am not.   The other wines I tasted once or twice and stopped.  This, I savored every sip to the last drop, and buckled at the knees when they offered another pour of it.  I-KEERUMBAHH...   As we were leaving, I called Magid by cell phone and told him that his two remaining bottles of Hillside had just been sold.   By the way, Shafer does realize how good this product is, and the price for it reflects this recognition.   Yet, I have tasted other Cabernets in Napa with similar price tags, without nearly as worthy a product inside the bottle.

Dinner that evening was at Cole’s Chop House in Napa.  Calvin was up for a steak, and I thought this was a very good place for that purpose.  It was a very nice dining experience, but not as good as my first trip there back in November.  I must say that the wine we drank that evening (SLV Cabernet), likely contributed to that lesser impression.   To me, wine should blend with your fare, not fight with it for dominance.

I plan to continue my saga of this trip’s next two days, but for now the length of a continuous composition might start to cause fits of yawning among the readers.  So, I will script my recollections in two phases.  Our March journey through Napa proved to be a most-excellent adventure, and the tales of the next two days’ experiences are even better.  With Sally’s gracious consent, the story will continue.

To hear an audio interview with Doug Shafer, Sally and Toni Allegra, scroll down to near the bottom of this page:


Shafer Winery

Sushi 69

Hyde Vineyards

Gillwood’s Café

Stags Leap Winery

Stags Leap Cellars

Spottswoode Winery

Cole’s Chop House


Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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